About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Michael's Picks

* Is President Barack Obama an atheist? Jerry Coyne thinks so. Why? Because Obama doesn't go to church regularly (it's not like he's busy or would cause any sort of distraction) and because Obama gets daily devotionals sent to his BlackBerry (yeah, my atheist self has an app for that). Hm ... maybe Coyne's blog, dubbed "Why Evolution is True," should be named "Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong."

* A proposal in the Nebraska legislature to ban abortions after 20 weeks -- that is when the fetus can feel pain, lawmakers charge -- has solid support, according to a local paper. If it passes, expect it to be challenged.

* Sticking to the issue of abortion, here's a piece about the supposed "personhood" movement that is trying to stretch the legal definition of "person" so that abortion would be illegal. I don't expect it to gain much ground, but hey, these people do exist.

* I got to spend an evening (no, not a date) with the up-and-coming conservative atheist S.E. Cupp, who happens to just love religion. Read about that here.

* If male martyrs can expect 72 virgins in paradise when they die (they can? can they?), what rewards can female suicide bombers expect? If you were wondering ...

* Chris Mooney argues that secularists need to court religious moderates. What say you?

* The latest scandal in the Catholic Church has dropped Pope Benedict XVI's approval rating in the U.S. to 40 percent. Which is a shame, because all this news reporting on the pedophilia cover-up is just "petty gossip," of course.

* Belgium is the latest country moving to ban the burqa in public.

* Apparently Deepak Chopra thinks he can cause earthquakes. Right.

* Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens is expected to step down soon. Who is Obama considering as his replacement?

* And though it isn't newsworthy, I recently re-discovered one of my favorite grad school assignments: E.H. Carr's book "What is History." An excerpt, called "The Historian and His Facts," can be found here.


  1. "* Chris Mooney argues that secularists need to court religious moderates. What say you?"

    Well, I say WHY? We really haven't been, yet atheism is on the rise while religion is on he decline, especially since the 'strident and militant' New Atheists started saying what they really think. I think we're just fine, religious moderates need to court reality.

  2. Michael, what happened? I hope you can back that pompousness up with the next post.

    Your first post was thoughtful and then you practically equate having a platform with a legitimate dismissal of others' ideas.

    At least when Massimo and Julia do the same I know they have the skills to back it up.

    And to point to the most obvious incongruity with the overall aim of the blog, I would suggest that you have no idea whether Deepak Chopra caused that earthquake or not.

    You probably didn't even think about induction when you wrote that did you? Just that Deepak was another idiot making an assertion contrary to science.

    It doesn't even matter that you're right, because you only believe you're right and that is the truth.
    What a pity.

  3. Obama as an atheist actually isn't much of a stretch. Read about his "conversion" in Dreams Of My Father, and you get the feeling that was added with an eye towards his future political career.

  4. "Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong."

    Michael, are you just humoristically challenged or have you been infected with the same irrational aversion against Coyne, Dawkins et al. that Masimmo has?

  5. I agree with Shawn above. Mooney's arguments don't hold up.

  6. I'm a bit surprised by the vitriol of some of these comments (especially for a Picks entry), but hey, Michael has a thick enough skin. However, I can't resist some quick rejoinders:

    I do think Mooney has a good point, and wonder whether people are beginning to reject him without even reading his essays, just because he is an "accommodationist."

    Harry, Chopra *is* indeed another idiot making an assertion contrary to reality. Do you have serious doubts about it or are you just being contrarian for its own sake?

    Obama may be an atheist, but to claim that he is based on Coyne's reasoning is wishful thinking, not to mention bad reasoning.

  7. @Morten,

    It's humorous to write about the president being an atheist? I wasn't aware. I simply saw Coyne's post, and as someone who studies Obama, found it to be short on reason.


    Yes, Obama has written openly about his doubts (in fact, he's written openly about his religion in general). However, if one reads his chapter on religion in "Audacity of Hope," or any of his speeches in the last couple years, or consider that he does indeed attend church, one can reasonably assume he is moderately religious (or really going out of his way to fool everyone). It's important to note there are degrees of religiosity, so while Obama is a rather secular, liberally religious president, that doesn't make him an atheist.

  8. Chris Mooney argues that secularists need to court religious moderates. What say you?

    I say if Mooney truly thinks scientific literacy is suffering, he needs to watch more television:

    'Good cop/bad cop' tactics involves a team of two interrogators who take apparently opposing approaches to the subject. The interrogators may interview the subject alternately or may confront the subject at the same time.

    The 'bad cop' takes an aggressive, negative stance towards the subject, making blatant accusations, derogatory comments, threats, and in general creating antipathy between the subject and himself. This sets the stage for the 'good cop' to act sympathetically: appearing supportive, understanding, in general showing sympathy for the subject. The good cop will also defend the subject from the bad cop. The subject may feel he can cooperate with the good cop out of trust and/or fear of the bad cop. He may then seek protection by and trust the good cop and tell him the needed information.



    Also, I say New Atheists have two separate, though overlapping, social aims: 1. to promote scientific literacy; 2. to diminish religion's influence. You can't very well court religious moderates while seeking the latter. At the very least, it's disingenuous.

  9. @ Ian,

    If some religious moderates accept a more secular government, then that may diminish religion's influence, at least in the (supposed) political sphere. It seems it would be possible to do both, "court religious moderates" and "diminish the influence of religion", right?

    @ the pope's approval,

    I find the approval concept a little weird. I do not know what it means to find the pope favorable or not. I guess he has enough power that we need to worry about the actions he takes, but I think unless one is catholic one should not worry much about the man. Obviously, I am critical of the catholic church, on the abortion issue, for instance, but that is a policy of the church and not of the man. There are deeper issues such as the pope influences the church which subsequently influences a great portion of people, incluiding peoples' belief that abortion is wrong. If someone were to ask me whether I find the current dalai lama favorable, I would be equally in wonder.

    As far as I can tell the whole scandal thing is problematic of an entire structure and not of a single man, at least not this man specifically.

  10. Michael (and Massimo), of course writing about Obama being an atheist is not particularly funny in itself. Actually the funniest thing is that you guys apparently think that Coyne was trying to make a deadserious argument?

  11. Massimo said,

    "Do you have serious doubts about it or are you just being contrarian for its own sake?"

    I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed, but I do break ground from time to time.

    What I wrote was that it didn't matter that Michael was right to be dismissive of Chopra. You can read my post again if you're skeptical :-)

    If his snide one word sentence had sat by itself without any other immature rhetoric on a recommendation page I wouldn't be..."vitriolic."

    So, your protege(?) ends his brief description of the most easily dismissible claim since the resurrection of Jesus with a sneer. Why?

    I propose a dichotomy. He's either trying to impress you (cause you're smart and damn charming). Or he's a piglet suckling at the sow of fashionable atheism, passing himself off as a "bright" and doesn't even know it.

    I hope I'm wrong, but he'll probably be about as good at reasoning as any believing atheist can be.

    Which unfortunately raises a larger issue. What are rational thinkers going to do with cultural atheism? ...when atheism becomes social fabric and not just a reasonable conclusion?

    Well Massimo, I couldn't think of a more prickish way of answering your question. Here's to being a contrarian for the sake of others and not just my own pleasure.

  12. @ Michael and others,

    I think the attack on Coyne -telling him to rename his blog "'Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong'"- is misguided given the link. It seems like you are pouncing on a very short, off-the-cuff blog entry for the sake of attacking someone you (and the rationallyspeaking.org blog) have decided to consistently attack. Coyne saw an interview with the president talking about religion and decided to make a short BLOG comment and toss out some other speculation and hope. I'm pretty sure Coyne knows he is not making a conclusive and well-rounded argument for Obama being an atheist. But that's alright, Coyne's evil and stupid, pounce.

    And then Massimo complains of vitriol . . . the tone of this blip about Coyne seems fairly vitriolic, unneccesary, and petty to me.

    I have not read Coyne, except for the link.

    Enjoyed the links though, even the Coyne one.

  13. Lyndon,

    I do find your (and others') comment a bit strange. Why does Coyne get a pass just because he wrote a pretty silly thing on a blog? He styles himself as a public intellectual, so he has a duty to write well argued pieces on his blog or anywhere else. I'm not expecting a scholarly article, but I do expect something more than "tossing out some speculation and hope."

  14. I guess I can see Coyne as being facetious in that he is mocking Lauer for asking Obama why he has yet to find a regular church to attend. The way the post is setup it seems like a stretch to view it that way.


    Seeing as I recently viewed your post on abortion (which I mostly agree with) I was curious on your take of Nebraska's attempt to ban abortions after 20 weeks.

  15. I don't think that secularists have a duty to court religious moderates except in the sense that we have a duty to try to convince them that they're wrong. Moderate religious beliefs are still really stupid. If you think God created the universe 14 billion years ago, you're wrong. If you think that God guided evolution, you're wrong. If you think that Process Theology is correct, you're wrong.

    Non-accomodationists often act as though Science alone can win this argument. It can't, but Philosophy and Science can together. And it's just a landslide: even religious moderates should not be treated as though they've got a somewhat reasonable point of view on religion and science.

  16. "Hm ... maybe Coyne's blog, dubbed "Why Evolution is True," should be named 'Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong.'"

    Coyne has eight! lines in that entry. The point was to bring the Lauer interview to knowledge, which he quotes more lines than he wrote, and then he did toss in his own hopeful speculation. This is much like you guys tossing out very short speculations in your "Pick's" sections. I don't take what is said in these sections as detailed argument or expect them to be "well argued pieces".

    The first commenter to Coyne's post: "I agree in the hope he's an atheist."

    -Coyne was looking for hope that the president is an atheist, and saw hope in the fact that Obama considers getting a "Daily Devotional on his blackberry" as substituting for going to church, a somewhat odd thing, as a positive sign. What an innocent, and, yes, trifling post, but certainly not one worth ridicule, but . . .

    It is out of a vendetta against a man like Coyne that Michael seized on the opportunity to slander and discredit Coyne. And that is petty and unneccesary. Something we should be above.

  17. Massimo, of course that post by Coyne was wishful thinking. I could only sadly shake my head when I read it.

    But the entire blog as "Why Coyne is wrong"? Implying that he is always wrong? On the human genome, speciation, evolution? Come on. This is such a kindergarten level zinger that defending it as legitimate fun shows just how absurd it is for you to harp endlessly on some similarly immature remarks on philosophy he may have made in some talks somewhere. If that is him hurting science, then this is De Dora hurting philosophy. Oh noes, will those two human endeavors ever recover from that catastrophic damage?

  18. Lyndon,

    If some religious moderates accept a more secular government, then that may diminish religion's influence, at least in the (supposed) political sphere. It seems it would be possible to do both, "court religious moderates" and "diminish the influence of religion", right?

    Right--if you forgo the larger cultural sphere, and refrain from censuring the thing you mean to censure. Is that a reasonable request?

  19. Massimo about Coyne:

    "He styles himself as a public intellectual, so he has a duty to write well argued pieces on his blog or anywhere else."

    Did you just derive an ought from an is there Massimo (just to spell it out: that was a joke!)?

    Coyne can of course write what ever he likes on his blog, but actually he often writes very well argued pieces (in my humble opinion).

    As Lyndons comment shows, I'm not the only one with the impression that you guys have just decided that Coyne (and Dawkins) are bad people and that no chance to attack them therefore should be missed.

    Shouldn't you as someone who "styles themselves as public intellectuals" be above such behavior (whoops - ought from is again?)?

  20. Ok, people, first let's make clear that there is no "vendetta" against Coyne or Dawkins. Talk about overly dramatic language!

    Second, all your talk of humor obviously missed the humorous sense in which Michael suggested to rename Coyne's blog. He is most certainly not saying that everything Coyne (or Dawkins) write is bunk. Indeed, most of it is good. But you rarely write a blog entry just to pat someone on the head, blogging is about engaging in critical discussions with people you disagree, yes? (Besides, I assure you that both my esteemed colleagues are big enough to take this sort of criticism w/out needing special pleading from others.)

    And yes, I do believe that someone who engages the public as an intellectual has a moral duty to write cogent arguments, see the description of this blog, top right of the page.

    Finally, and I think somewhat ironically, please notice that my recent post was about Harris, and that several people jumped on a parenthetical comment and made it a major thread in the discussion. Talk about doing things out of proportion.

  21. Finally, and I think somewhat ironically, please notice that my recent post was about Harris, and that several people jumped on a parenthetical comment and made it a major thread in the discussion.

    That would be me, among others. And I did it for two reasons, the first being that I did not have much to disagree with you re Harris, and the second that you do in fact frustratingly come back to dissing D&C every few posts no matter what the topic, and without ever acknowledging the counterarguments. Lemme write you a short faux-BASIC program to illustrate:

    10 Massimo "D&C claim that science can reject religion on its own."
    20 Mintman "No, they only claim that science on its own can reject all religion that matters to them, and they explicitly exclude hidden gods and Last Thursdayism."
    30 Massimo "But science alone cannot even do that; claiming something does definitely not exist is beyond the scope of science."
    40 Mintman "Science does that all the time, as when we reject alien intervention in ancient cultures for lack of evidence. Besides, as much philosophy as you need to reject untestable ad-hoc ideas is part of what science is."
    50 Massimo "That is different, the supernatural is special."
    60 Mintman "How is it different?"
    70 Massimo "Ooopsie, time for the next blog post..."
    80 goto 10

    It would be nice to read a convincing case for #50 to chew on, but especially seeing #20 erased from your memory every second week makes me wonder what is going on here. I do not use the word vendetta, but I would also not call your treatment of that issue rational.

  22. Mintman,

    I appreciate your comments, but you know, sometime it really is time to move on and get to the next post. I wonder if some people's impression that I have a vendetta against C/D emerges from the fact that I have to repeat my arguments so many times in the discussion threads.

    That said, I'm really puzzled by your persistence about the supernatural. What do you mean how is it different from the natural? The latter works by natural laws that can be discovered by science and are not capricious; the former can flaunt natural laws and behave completely arbitrarily. Oh, the other difference is that the natural exists, the supernatural is a figment of some people's deranged imagination.

  23. I agree completely that it does not exist! But in what sense is that not shown by lack of evidence for it existing, i.e. science?

    (As opposed to the Yeti, for example, where we will probably agree that a biologist such as myself arguing that science is sufficient to show that the Yeti does not exist because there is no evidence would not draw your ire? Or the other way round, is a Yeti that is always supposed to be where the biologist is currently not looking capricious and arbitrary enough to be supernatural, and as such only a philosopher allowed to reject it? Or would a god that miraculously but reliably protects all followers of a specific sect from natural disasters killing everyone else around them not be arbitrary enough to be supernatural? Maybe you might be motivated to elaborate in a future post one day, if you can find the time?)

  24. My issue with Mooney's position - and I would extend this criticism to those who agree with him - is that I think there is a manipulative nature (even if only inadvertent) about the idea of 'courting' someone on an issue in spite of the core disagreements they may have on what entails from that issue - like teaching evolution.

    The opponents of science and reason have made it pretty clear - be it in cases like Kitzmiller or the recent 'episodes' down in Texas - evolution makes no mention of god (and Ronald Reagan isn't mentioned enough, but thats another matter). This is a problem for this group. This is a religious issue, not a scientific one for these people. Opponents aren't launching scientific arguments that bolster their positions, they're just trying to find places in evolution (things like 'only a theory') to insert their religion in the science. We all know this, I don't need to explain.

    If the term 'religious moderate' is suppose to refer to people who are 'in between' the group I just mentioned and those who acknowledge and accept the conclusions the scientific process, than what kind of person are we talking about here? Catholics?

    A joke, but I think the point is there; trying to convince someone that they can have their cake and eat it too is BS when in fact you think they're cake is made up of "a figment of some people's deranged imagination", as Massimo put it, above.

    What people like Mooney and Mattew Nisbet are trying to do are akin to public relations people who only care about the ends and not the means in which they accomplish them. Surely, we can agree that science has the goods and those ends are not only important, but worthy of such time and effort, but that doesn't mean we have to put on cheap suits to 'fit in' to schemes and groups we would otherwise, in other contexts, criticize as ridiculous.

    What I can appreciate about people like Dawkins, Coyne, Hitchens, or the like, is that at the very least, they are being forthright.

  25. Sorry to jump into the fray so late, but I thought that maybe this blog should be renamed "Why isn't Michael ever Rationally Speaking?" That's funny, right?

  26. hmm, yeah I can sort of see the humor, but considering that Michael has posted exactly one entry (plus his first round of Picks), perhaps your inductive database is a bit lacking as of now, no?

  27. Massimo,

    Of course my inductive base is far too small to justify the comment, in the same way that the copious authoritative posts on evolution in Coyne's blog (to whom, btw, I have no particular allegiance) makes Michael's joke similarly out of proportion. Moreover, this reminds me of the difficulty of parsing tone in blog posts (and emails, and writing in general). So much of this kerfuffle turns on the tone of Coyne's post. You and Michael seem to discount an ironic undertone, while others insist on its being loud and clear. I phrased my first comment so as to make the irony unmistakable. But your straightforward response (or was it ironic...) is a good reminder that tone always is, in the end, in the eyes of the beholder.

    BTW, I'm a relative newcomer to your blog and podcast, which I've been enjoying very much recently.

  28. It's my draw that Coyne is inferring Obama is too smart not to be at least an agnostic with an appreciation for the mythological.

  29. @Morten and Lyndon,

    Here is exactly what Coyne wrote:

    "Obama is a smart man, smart enough to know that unless he pretends to the trappings of faith, he has no credibility with the American people. I’ve long thought that he was an unbeliever, and this was confirmed yesterday in an interview Obama had with NBC’s Matt Lauer.


    Instead of going to church in Washington he gets a daily devotional on his BlackBerry? Who is he kidding? The man’s an atheist."

    This isn't wishful thinking. In fact, Coyne even admits there that he long thought Obama was an atheist. So, Coyne presented his argument and reasons for public discussion. I'm sorry, but I don't see the joke in there, nor do I see where Coyne was merely practicing "wishful thinking."

    Also, I think this argument that this blog has a "vendetta" against Coyne and Dawkins is misguided. Massimo has been rightly critical of those two when need be; and I've posted exactly one link here about Coyne.

  30. Massimo,

    I wonder if some people's impression that I have a vendetta against C/D emerges from the fact that I have to repeat my arguments so many times in the discussion threads.

    It would help to clarify if you did more fiskings. As a suggestion, Coyne summarizes his position on accomodationism here. On what points do you disagree?

  31. @Artie,

    The problem with that argument is that many religious believers are extraordinarily smart.

  32. "- many religious believers are extraordinarily smart," but not that many were raised by an agnostic mother and became a pragmatistic President.

  33. Mintman,

    "I agree completely that it does not exist! But in what sense is that not shown by lack of evidence for it existing, i.e. science?"

    Perhaps I should follow Massimo's lead by ignoring this but I just can't. There's nothing scientific about inferring nonexistence from lack of evidence. In fact, I would describe that as a staggeringly unscientific activity.

    We don't conclude that Yeti (Yetis?) don't exist because there's no evidence of them. We assume they don't exist because lots of people have tried to find Yeti in all the places they're supposed to be and failed. That's very different from "lack of evidence"; in fact, it constitutes a substantial body of evidence that Yeti don't exist or else are remarkably hard to find.

    It's important to make distinctions between (a) things that we've tried and failed to find, (b) things that we have not tried to find, and (c) things that we, by definition, cannot find.

    If we're going to talk about the existence of things in categories b and c, lack of evidence means nothing.

    Yeti fall into category a. I'd guess that among Europeans, black swans fell into category b until around 1697. Much of the supernatural falls into category c. But then, so do things like "the set of all natural numbers" and "surface integrals"; so even things in category c are sometimes worth believing in, whether they exist or not. That's where philosophy (it seems to me) comes in.

  34. What is a "fisking"?

    Not that I am an American, but from what I read in the internet and on the news, people projecting their hopes for progressive policies onto Obama and then being disappointed seems to be a more general problem.

  35. Either Obama is atheist or not.

    If not, I appreciate his including us.

    If he is, then he is a bad example of and for atheists - A less than honest President.

  36. What is a "fisking"?

    As Wikipedia puts it, "a point-by-point criticism that highlights perceived errors, or disputes the analysis in a [particular] statement, article, or essay."

  37. "What is a 'fisking'?"


    Fisking is asking a fish only something it would know. It's the most species specific present participle we have.


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